The quality of teaching in further education colleges is under threat from poor funding and constantly changing government priorities, according to a major new study.
The lack of stability in finances and policy means colleges cannot plan effectively, and improving what takes place in the classroom often takes second place to financial survival.
The research finds good learning often only happens because tutors routinely work outside their job description. It also highlights the pressures of redundancies. Of 24 tutors directly involved in the research at its outset in 2001, more than half have been made redundant or have left teaching in FE.
The four-year independent study is the largest ever conducted on teaching in FE. It was carried out by a partnership of colleges and universities and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
A final report is still being drafted but its main findings have been submitted to Sir Andrew Foster's review of the future role of colleges, due to be released at next week's Association of Colleges annual conference.
One of the directors of the project, Professor David James of the University of the West of England's faculty of education, said it revealed "a desperate need for a new approach to the improvement of teaching and learning".
"We have strong evidence that tutors are hemmed in by targets, with a narrow set of definitions used to measure the quality of their work, and that this is stifling their energy and enthusiasm and also their performance," he said.
The project - called Transforming Learning Cultures in FE - was carried out by a team of 30 researchers, most of them FE tutors. It involved City of Bristol college, Cornwall college, Park Lane college, Leeds, and City college, Coventry.
It found learning in FE is pressured and destabilised by inadequate funding, and a rigid audit regime focused on retention, achievement and inspection.
"The result is tutors who spend much of their time striving to protect the existing learning culture from external damage," the report says.
The Association of Colleges' director of funding and development Julian Gravatt said the report reflected its concerns about funding, changing Government priorities and over-centralisation. However, he said: "We would view some of the reform initiatives criticised in the report in a more positive light."